GUELPH — Lab grown meat is not far off reality.
The cellular meat industry is quickly gaining traction around the world with market research Technavio stating that the global cultured meat market has the potential to grow by over 200 million USD in the next three years.
But the fact of the matter is that the technology is new and little is known about whether or not people are willing to eat meat grown in a lab.
To find out, the University of Guelph is currently conducting a study to understand what consumers and members of the meat supply chain think about the new technology before it ends up on grocery shelves.
“There's a bit of a yuck factor and uncertainty and hesitancy about something that is very new and complicated,” said Simon Somogyi, director of the Longo's Food Retail Laboratory and Arrell Chair in the business of food at the U of G.
Somogyi is leading a group of students at U of G — who are working with Second Harvest, a business in the cellular agriculture field and Cellular Agriculture Canada, a national cellular agriculture oganization — to understand what retailers want and what consumers think about cellular agriculture.
But first it’s important to understand what exactly cellular agriculture or lab grown meat is.
“What happens is that stem cells are taken from the animal and are then grown in a cultural medium. They're basically stem cells from an animal that can be grown in a fermentation vessel which then ferments and creates meat,” said Somogyi.
“So effectively the product of that process is meat that is identical to meat that would come from an animal.”
He said within the next five years, there might be cellular meat products that may act as a substitute for ground beef and maybe used in processed food products like burgers one can purchase.
“When it comes to cellular based meat, it's very basic meat that we're talking about. Something that would compete with ground beef for example,” said Somogyi.
“At this point of time, it's not possible to make steak that has a bone attached to it because that's a little more complicated and the texture of steak is different from ground beef which is very much minced stuff.”
However, he adds that there are companies working on being able to create products such as steak and fish which have specific texture.
Somogyi explains that the technology is still very new and not yet a commercial reality.
Eight years ago in 2013, Mark Post, a dutch stem cell researcher, presented a hamburger he made in a lab from bovine stem cells. That first synthetic meat product was estimated to cost $375,000 USD and was introduced as the first lab-grown meat to the world.
Somogyi said the technology has been advancing ever since and some scientists believe that in the next 10 to 15 years, it will be possible to not only create meat, but also other products in the agriculture space such as fish.
He said if the world does get to that point where meat grown in labs is identical to meat grown on an animal, it will be an issue for meat industries such as the beef, chicken and pork sectors because farms and land won’t be necessary to make meat products.
“That could disrupt a lot of livestock products. It would be interesting to see what they think about the product. Is it possible that they may want to get into a situation where they are producing or investing in cellular agriculture products?” said Somogyi.
He said the same goes for the process of meat. For companies that make small meat products such as pepperoni, beef burgers, bacon or hot dogs, would they want to use new technology to cultivate their own products or rely on farms? — a question the U of G study can help determine.
However, he doesn't see lab-grown meat effectively competing with animal meat for the next 25 years.
“The issue they face is that for that product to be workable in the marketplace, it has to be produced at a certain cost of production, that’s competitive for the marketplace for the substitute which is animal meat,” said Somogyi.
Somogyi believes that the introduction of cellular agriculture will give consumers a choice between different types of meat.
“Rearing animals on land is natural, and the process of cultivating cellular meat wouldn't be seen as natural which invokes a yuck response from people.
“This technology does provide something that is chemically, physically, potentially, identical to what animal meat is,” said Somogyi.
He also stressed that there are a lot of benefits that livestock produces for the earth — such as grazing animals to generate soil, and being instrumental for rural areas.
“In my mind we’ll always have some animals grazing on land and providing food for people,” said Somogyi.
“It is going to take a lot of education to consumers about what this (cellular meat) is, how it works and the benefits of it, and the drawback of it as well. And that's going to take some time.”